Friday, May 02, 2014

Mourning Cloak Becomes Butterfly

In April, mourning cloak caterpillars (Nymphalis antiopa) matured in our ornamental plum tree and became chrysalises.

I brought one into the house in a bug box hoping to catch the moment of transformation as it emerged as a butterfly. Resources said the metamorphosis should take 10-14 days. On the 12th day after forming a chrysalis, "Morty" emerged. As you might have guessed, one minute the chrysalis was hanging motionless, a half hour later I walked by and he (it) was pumping fluid into unfurled wings.

We missed the moment of emergence, but we still had the thrill of seeing how the black spiky caterpillar metamorphosed into a delicate winged butterfly. On the bottom of the bug box was a drop of fluid from inside the chrysalis. Some sources say this is extra pigment. Amazingly, when I washed out the box, the water turned an orange-pink. 

I always think twice about bringing a wild thing into the house because they belong outside. They have evolved to survive warm days and cool nights (saving a bird). We were diligent to maintain an even temperature and humidity, and to keep the enclosure out of direct sunlight.

At the same time, we watched a second chrysalis that was outside. The caterpillar had attached to the bottom of our "Welcome" sign 36 hours after the one we had in the house. We hoped to catch this second butterfly as it emerged, but...

As day 14 came and went without the color changes we had seen in the chrysalis in the house, we wondered if the cool night-time temperatures had delayed the transformation. We continued to watch the chrysalis and as the daytime temperatures warmed up, I started to see the yellow coloring coming through the chrysalis wall that had heralded the emergence of Morty. 

Then hot dry winds began to blow. I kept hoping the butterfly would emerge, but yesterday the color seemed intensified. (see original coloring) It appeared to be dehydrating. 

This morning the story ends. The photo shows a small hole gnawed into the side of the chrysalis. Some other insect has preyed upon the unlucky mourning cloak before it could complete its metamorphosis.

Morty is flying about the yard and hopefully some of its siblings are as well. I hope they will contribute to the next generation of mourning cloak butterflies.

On a recent trip to Orcutt Ranch Park, I saw a number of butterflies: mourning cloak, painted ladies (Vanessa cardui), western swallowtail (Papilio rutulus), and anise swallowtail (Papilio zelicaon).  Check out a video of this Hidden Garden in Los Angeles at


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